i dream of being possible

tying it all together: how informal networks create systemic barriers

So the blog that everyone loves to hate, Hiring Librarians, post a really interesting inverview with a job seeker1 which contained this:

What do you think is the secret to getting hired?

Organizational fit. Often difficult to assess, but critical to success on the job. I have found organizations will often hire someone that is somehow known to them or connected to the library, university, hospital, etc., e.g. former employee, known colleague from partner institution, volunteer, recommended by someone trusted by search committee member(s) — i.e. Often about who you know. Preparation also helps.

This is almost an axiom of job searching or success within your field. Despite all the vocal belief that white US/Canadian culture likes to hold about bootstraps and fierce individualism2, “I have found organizations will often hire someone that is somehow known to them.”

Once more:

I have found organizations will often hire someone that is somehow known to them.

This statement, on the surface seems relatively innocuous. But it isn’t really. In reality, the ideas and culture behind this is one of the main drivers for the persistance of inequality in job hiring and workplaces despite (at least for Canada and the US) most places having laws against discrimination.

In the tech community critiques over this notion of cultural/organizational fit have been floating around for quite some time, so I’m not going to belabour this point. There are also recent critiques about the concept of professional networking (and I’ve had my own critiques of networking in library land).

And now it is time to tie these three ideas together to understand how we’ve maintained stark inequality within a legal framework putatively designed to prevent this exact sort of thing. To recap (for the sake of clarity) these are the three propositions before us:

  1. Getting hired is often about who you know.
  2. Organizational/culture ‘fit’ is not only nebulous but specifically designed to admit only certain kinds of people.
  3. Networking is a necessary tool for success (see item 1), but only networking of a narrowly defined kind (see item 2).

Networking can almost be viewed as an audition for organizations. How successfully you network not only increases the people who you know but it is also a way for you to demonstrate that you fit in the culture. And, yes, it is highly self-selecting. If you are a mother and can’t attend evening events that run late and have a lot of booze? Well, clearly you don’t fit the culture otherwise you’d make an effort to show up. But if you don’t show up, then you won’t meet people who might be instrumental for getting a new job or some other important opportunity.

On the first point, though, here is what [some recent research has to say]:

So white Americans tell a neighbor’s son about a job, hire a friend’s daughter, carry the resume of a friend (or, for that matter, a friend’s boyfriend’s sister) into the boss’s office, recommend an old school mate or co-worker for an unadvertised opening, or just say great things about that job applicant whom they happen to know. But since most Americans, white and black, live virtually segregated lives, and since advantages, privileges and economic progress have already accrued in favor of whites, the additional advantages that flow from this help go almost exclusively to whites, DiTomaso said….

DiTomaso’s work does confirm that networks – not just the kind you build over awkward conversations, finger foods and watered-down cocktails but the kind you’re born into – matter, Austin said. It also points to just how different forms of inequality feed one another. Family-and-friends segregation feeds job and income inequality. That in turn feeds neighborhood and school segregation. That then leaves some kids less likely to receive a quality education and escape from the cycle, he said.

This is a cycle and system that feeds into itself. Marginalized people, because we are marginalized, rarely have access to the kinds of networks that are great for advancement3.

Put another way: who you are determines who you know in some very important none trivial ways. Yes, as you become an adult you are able to change some of these things (to an extent), but only with great difficulty.

And here is where things like conferences and other types of professional networking come into play. Except… there are many barriers in place for participation in these sorts of things. Barriers that serve to place real limits on the ability of a marginalized person to grow their networks and then leverage these networks for their own advancement.

All of these things work together. They feed into one another. They sustain each other. This is the sort of thing we are talking about when we speak of institutional/systemic oppression. Because something like this is complex and relies on the aggregated actions of many people.

DiTomaso concludes, based on her research, that most white Americans engage, at least a few times per year, in the activities that foster inequality. While they may not deliberately discriminate against black and other non-white job seekers, they take actions that make it more likely that white people will be employed – without thinking that what they’re doing amounts to discrimination.

And the reason this is so difficult to change is precisely because this behaviour is so normalized and unconcious that many of us just shrug our shoulders and say “this is how it works” or “everyone does it.” Also because behaviours like this are difficult to pinpoint and address. They are also something that really wouldn’t be covered by a law (or would be incredibly difficult to prove as discrimination).

Life goes on.

  1. I’m not actually being sarcastic here. I’m in awe of this person’s approach to job searching. It is a level of effort that I’m simply not capable of. But the effort they put into job searching makes their comment here all the more interesting, since it is pretty clear that zero amount of preparation and effort can crack this secret. 

  2. This is the whole notion of the ‘self-made man’. Of the reason we love and admire entrepeneurs so much. Why we love start-up culture the way we do. Because it conforms to a certain narrative of success that has a single, great individual (only sometimes a small team) overcoming obstacles and succeeding all on their own merit. 

  3. One only has to look at something like legacy admissions for US colleges to see how this works. A lot of Asians start doing well on exams and attend highly ranked universities in disproportionate numbers and there is panic about their being ‘too’ many Asians and policies debated to cap our enrollmenbt. White people get into the same colleges because their parents or whatever attended, and this is just business as usual while Black students get accused of being ‘affirmative action’ tokens.